By Daniel Griffin:
I’ve had this conversation like 1,000 times:
Person: “So what do you study?”
Me: “I’m doing a BA majoring in linguistics”
Person: “Oh, right … So how many languages do you know?”
Every time I hear that, I instantly have the urge to punch them in the face.
Look, as a general rule, don’t act as if you know something and try and make yourself sound smart. Just be honest, and if you don’t know what a word means, ask. There’s plenty of words and fields of study I have no idea about, but I don’t go around assuming I know what they are on about and subsequently make myself look like an idiot.
And to be fair, hardly anyone knows what linguistics is, and IMHO, it is greatly underrated. And I have my reasons for thinking that, but we’ll keep that for another time.
Linguistics is the study of language, not as in learning and speaking different languages, but as in looking at language and breaking it down into its different parts and seeing how they work, pretty much. It’s everything you could possibly know *about* languages, while not necessarily being able to speak and use them. Now hear me out, because that’s not such a waste of time.
We all use language like a boss, perfectly articulating what we mean in the way we want to say it and everyone seems to get everyone else no problem. You understand me and I understand you. All of this happens without us even thinking about it. Amazing really.
So Linguistics is just like taking what you already know about language subconsciously and basically making all that stuff conscious, making you aware of what you are actually doing when you use language.
So linguistics can be broken down into some major fields. Starting from the bottom-up: Phonetics, which is about sounds, specifically the physical sounds, basically measuring their pitch, frequency etc.
Then comes Phonology, which is about sounds also, but more about which sounds mean what. For instance, some languages distinguish between different kinds of vowels that sound like ‘eeeee’, where different kinds of ‘eeeee’ vowels have different meanings. But in other languages, all the ways of making ‘eeeee’ vowels are understood to be the same, and are not distinguished, if you know what I mean.
Next comes morphology, which is about meaning of words and meaning in words. A morpheme is the smallest possible unit of meaning. For example in the word: “students”, student has a meaning and –shas a meaning, so both are morphemes. But stu- by itself doesn’t mean anything, so it’s not a morpheme.
Next is Syntax, which deals with how words are organised into phrases and sentences. That can mean how the words are ordered, which word should come first, and so on.
Above that is semantics, which is basically about meaning in words, but only the literal meaning of words or the dictionary meaning of words.
Then there is pragmatics, which also is about meaning, but meaning that depends on the context in which the language is found. For example, you can say “It’s cold” to a stranger as a way of just commenting on the weather, making small talk. However, you can also say “It’s cold” to someone you have authority over, which can mean, ‘get up and turn on the heater!’, for instance.
Overall, linguistics is the study of language. I’ve met people studying English literature who have never studied linguistics, and I’m like ‘what’s wrong with you?’. In what circumstance will an appreciation of 18th century literature come in handy, whereas we use language all the time. It seems silly not to dedicate some time to at least have an idea of something so important; it’s a major factor that separates human beings from animals.
If you haven’t already, start with Introduction to Linguistics (Unit No.101945), the Autumn census date is 31st of March, don’t tell me it’s too late. If you complete this unit and choose not to continue with linguistics, I’ll get off your back.
By Daniel Griffin